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Performance art at the Boardman Centre

18 Apr 2019

This article was originally published in issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Matt Ben Stone

It was 25 years ago that the science of aerodynamics really started to matter in the world of cycling. During the mid-1990s, two British riders – Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman – battled it out for the much-coveted Hour Record, both of them experimenting with unusual bikes and riding positions in an attempt to eke out any advantage.

‘It’s all about aerodynamics,’ Boardman said of the Hour. ‘Graeme Obree was the first person to look outside the history of the event and look at its real demands.’

Obree may have started the fire, but it was Boardman who fanned the flames.

He became famous for his meticulous attention to detail in terms of aerodynamics and physiology, eventually using his vast experience to help guide the GB track squad to Olympic dominance in Beijing in 2008.

Ten years later, Boardman’s ethos has finally found its perfect embodiment in the Boardman Performance Centre, nestled in a nondescript retail village in Evesham, Worcestershire.

The answers are blowing in the wind

Chris Boardman is a man of many hats. As well as being a commentator and ex-pro, he is also Cycling Commissioner for Manchester and the founder and former owner of Boardman Bikes.

That company is now owned by Halfords, but for the wind-tunnel project Boardman the man and Boardman the company converged once again, and he described the opening of the centre in 2018 as a seven-year dream come true.

When Boardman, in collaboration with Boardman Bikes, conceived of the wind-tunnel, the idea was to create a template that could be sold across the UK and beyond.

Indeed, there are already plans to build two more in Silverstone, to be used for cycling, speed-skating, running and all manner of speed-based sports.

Typical to Boardman’s focus on performance, the centre is not just a wind-tunnel but is set up to analyse and improve all aspects of a cyclist’s position and training in a holistic 360° experience.

‘It all started with a wind-tunnel,’ says Dr Barney Wainwright, head of science and technical development at the Boardman Performance Centre.

‘But quickly we identified that we needed to introduce bike fitting to determine positioning, as that’s integral to the performance in the wind-tunnel. Then we realised we definitely needed biomechanics too.’

I’m here to experience the full Performance Centre assessment, and that begins with a discussion about my particular goals. I tell Wainwright that my big target for the season is a fast time at the Mallorca 312 sportive.

As the name suggests, it’s 312km in length, and my personal record on the course is 10 hours 40 minutes, which I’d like to improve upon. To do so will take a combination of endurance, power and aerodynamics.

The showpiece of the centre is no doubt the magnificent cycling-specific open-jet wind-tunnel that sits on one side of the facility.

Yet the physiological testing and bike fitting studios boast similar levels of technical sophistication. So while the whirr of the wind-tunnel beckons, today’s journey has to begin in the fitting room.

Bend me, shape me

I’m taken upstairs to a light, whitewashed room beside the wind-tunnel. It’s here that the centre’s resident bike fitter and physiotherapist, Bianca Broadbent, will ruthlessly expose my physical weaknesses, all in the name of honing a strong enough platform on which to build performance gains.

It proves to be an eye opener. First are the measurements, weighing, flexibility testing and a brief dressing down for never stretching, before moving onto a Wattbike to see how all of that melds together into a riding style.

A short time later my shoe has been packed with new inserts, my cleat position moved forward, and my saddle has been shifted back 1cm (and custom-matched to the pressure maps of my posterior).

 ‘One of the reasons we put customers on a Wattbike is that you can put them under load, which you can’t do on a lot of other jigs,’ Broadbent says.

‘Your body responds and adapts differently under load in terms of the movement and the force patterns it generates.’

I have a series of glowing transmitters, strangely reminiscent of Boa dials, attached to numerous points on my legs and body. As I go through a series of pedalling exercises and short bursts of intensity, a computer-generated stick man is being formed by the data.

Once I finish, I see the skinny chap awkwardly jolting from side to side in time with my various muscular imbalances.

A few minor tweaks later and I’m ready to move to the next room, where I will undergo physiology profiling and a ramp test that involves incrementally increasing power over a 20-minute period.

This data, combined with my fit and wind-tunnel analysis, will eventually give me targets for my season’s training.

Stepping up

Senior physiologist Lee Eddens straps a mask to my face, a heart rate monitor to my chest and a pulse oximeter to my finger.

He gets me to start pedalling while he intermittently pricks my finger to measure the lactic acid in my blood. It feels a little intrusive, but already a wealth of data is spreading over the screen in front of me. 

He believes many athletes train blind by targeting power numbers over more traditional training plans and performance analysis.

‘With power meters coming in over the last 10 years, more and more people feel that gives them all the information they need,’ Eddens says.

‘But many riders find that they plateau, and it’s because they are focussing on hitting high power numbers and trying to sustain them.

‘We’re trying to pull out a much richer set of data, which helps explain all aspects of endurance performance rather than one or two snips in the dark.’ 

Snips in the dark is an interesting way of putting it. For instance, I’ve done many ‘functional threshold’ tests, which have generated figures ranging from 320 watts to 335 watts based on a 20-minute maximal test, but it seems I may have been fumbling around blindly.

Eddens uses a measure of blood lactate against the volume of oxygen being used to work out when a body is beginning to struggle under effort.

This is boiled down to two figures called LT1 and LT2, representing aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. I discover that my aerobic threshold is 251 watts, a little more than I thought and a rough guide to what I could sustain over a sportive or road race.

My LT2 anaerobic threshold, on the other hand, is barely over 290 watts, substantially lower than my FTP from a 20-minute test. But these figures, says Eddens, are key to my future training towards riding 312km at pace.

‘FTP tells you how good you are at a 20-minute time-trial, so it’s a good performance measure but not the best measure of physiology,’ he says.

As the lactic acid in my muscles begins to snowball at 292 watts, Eddens tells me it’s important to hover around that level during intense training, even if I feel capable of more.

Equally, exceeding 250 watts early in a sportive will put me in dangerous territory in terms of lactic build-up and energy use. As I pedal, the machine spews out more and more data, but there’s no chance to pore over the details now.

It’s time to head into the heart of the wind-tunnel.

Wind in the willows

As soon as I mount the bike, a series of figures and metrics is projected in front of me on the brilliantly white floor of the temple-like chamber.

I begin pedalling, squeezing myself into different shapes as Wainwright feeds me instructions and watches through the window.

It only takes a few minutes for me to realise how much my body position affects my speed on the bike. In my baseline position, sitting upright on the hoods, my coefficient of drag area (CdA) is 0.295.

To put that into English, when I pedal at 208 watts my speed is 34.9kmh. When I tuck down into a slightly strained aerodynamic position with my hands still on the lever hoods, my CdA drops to 0.249 – that means for the same effort I can do 36.7kmh.

Over the course of the Mallorca 312, an extra 2kmh would save me around 40 minutes. Of course, real life isn’t that simple. Climbing, descending and sitting in a large group all change the scenario of drag.

With that in mind, we look at how much drag I will gain while sitting in a more comfortable climbing position. With my hands close together on the tops of the bars, and my body stretched out and able to breath easily, my CdA jumps up to 0.298.

To my surprise, however, because my profile has slimmed since I am now sitting taller this would cost me only 0.2kmh at 35kmh. At climbing speed, the losses would be even smaller.

We try a few more positions and discover that holding the drops is actually slower than sitting in an aero position on the hoods.

What’s more, some of my most contorted positions with my head extremely low make only the smallest of gains – barely 0.3kmh, with significant comfort and power losses. It’s food for thought when it comes to how I ride solo or on the front of a group.

With my quads aching, my shoulders strained from holding different positions and my head spinning with data, we come to the end of an eight-hour odyssey of performance gains.

What is clear is that refining my body position will bring far more speed gains than spending a packet on aerodynamic bike frames or wheels.

It brings to mind a quote from Boardman himself: ‘Be as good as you can be, and when you cross the finish line we’ll see how far it’s got you.’

At the Boardman Performance Centre, it seems that no matter how good you may be, there are plenty of ways to be a little better.

Try it yourself

What’s on offer at the Boardman Performance Centre?

Wind-tunnel assessment starts at £195 and goes up to £695 for the full four-hour package that includes a bike fit.

Bike fits range from £275 to £575, or you could go for a custom insoles or saddle fit for £150. A ‘Ride MOT’, giving a snapshot of your rider profile and possible goals, is £195.

Throwing fit, physiology and aerodynamics together is a complete eight-hour package for £1,200. Not cheap, but in terms of pounds for speed gained, it’s probably cheaper than that new wheelset you had your eye on.

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